Notes on the Text

( by Roger Ayers)


[Title] ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ See Introductory notes.

[Subtitle] ‘Soudan’ – the English 19th C spelling of Sudan.

‘Early Campaigns’ – First added to the original sub-title of ‘Soudan Expeditionary Force’ in the 1932 Inclusive Verse in order to differentiate between the first Expeditionary Force against the Mahdist Jihad, 1882-85 and the later second Expeditionary Force employed in the Reconquest of the Soudan, 1886-89.

[Line 3] ‘The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese’ The opponents of the British Army in three wars shortly before or during the early Sudan campaigns.

  • The 2nd Afghan War 1878-80 against Afghan and Pathan tribesmen on India’s northwest frontier, ‘Paythan’ being Kipling’s rendering of the name as spoken by the British soldier, whether Cockney or Irish.
  • The Zulu War 1878-79 against the Zulu nation under Cetawayo in southern Africa.
  • The Third Burmese War 1885-86, which resulted in the annexation of Burma in 1886 but dragged on in guerrilla warfare until 1892.

[Line 5] ‘We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im’ ‘We never got a halfpennyworth of change from him’; that is, we had to pay the full price for everything.

[Line 6] ‘He squatted in the scrub and ‘ocked our horses’ a description of one of the tactics adopted by the Mahdist forces when charged by cavalry in the predominantly scrub-covered desert of the Eastern Sudan. The tribesmen would take cover or pretend to be dead in the scrub as the cavalry charged through and then, as the cavalry returned on blown horses, reappear and hamstring the horses to bring them down before attacking their riders. However, although this tactic resulted in heavy casualties to two regiments of British cavalry at the Second Battle of El Teb, 29 February 1884, it was less successful in subsequent battles. (See A Good Dusting, Henry Keown-Boyd, Leo Cooper, London, 1986)

Kipling’s use of the word ‘hocked’ for hamstringing probably owes more to the requirements of the metre than to it being a word used by soldiers, since the vulnerable hamstring is behind the stifle (equivalent to the knee) and the hock is the joint below the knee.

[Line 7] ‘…Suakim Suakin (sic) was the principal port in the Eastern Sudan on the Red Sea coast. It was the Headquarters and port of entry between 1883 and 1885 for troops from Egypt, England, India and, ultimately, Australia.

[Line 8] ‘…played the cat and banjo with our forces.’ The term ‘cat and banjo’ has puzzled two of the three major commentators on the Barrack room ballads. Whilst Charles Carrington ignored it, Ralph Durand thought that it was:

“The sort of phrase that a ‘Tommy’ who happens to be a wag coins on the spur of the moment. It is possibly suggested by ‘Cat and Fiddle’, which is sometimes met with in England as a public house sign.”

John Whitehead thought that the phrase meant ‘played havoc’ and:

“seems to be an amalgam of ‘played cat and mouse’ and the words of the nursery rhyme: Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle.”

However, Kipling later used this phrase when he wrote in a letter to James Conland dated 8-24 November 1896 after returning to England from the USA: “This damp climate..,has played the cat and Banjo with all my teeth…” (The Letters of Rudyard Kipling Vol 2, Ed. Thomas Pinney, Macmillan, London, 1990) This supports the view that it meant ‘played havoc with’, or ‘played the very devil with’ but, since Kipling used it twice at least some 5 or 6 years apart, it also makes it more likely that it was phrase with some currency in his life; either as a family saying or as something actually picked up from soldier slang. If the latter, then it is most likely to have been a reference to the then recently abolished (1881) punishment of flogging, the cat being the lash and the soldier tied spreadeagled on a gun-wheel being the banjo.

[Line 10] ‘You’re a poor benighted heathen……’ The expression ‘poor benighted heathen’ was coined by Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), who was Britain’s best-known preacher of the mid-Victorian age. In his heyday in the 1860s he regularly preached to congregations of several thousands in halls and at the Baptist Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. His sermons and theological commentaries were widely published and very popular. The expression appears in the sermon ‘The Inexhaustable Barrel’, given 18 December 1859 on the theme of Divine Love, when he referred to the ‘widow of Sarepta, a city of Sidon,’(both 1 Kings 17:9. and Luke 4:26.) as: “not one of [God’s] own favoured race of Israel, but a poor benighted heathen…”

[Lines 10 and 11] ‘..a first-class fighting man; We gives you your certificate…” British soldiers’ training in education and specialist military skills, such as signalling or marksmanship, was split into levels, or classes, with certificates awarded at each level, so a qualified first-class fighting man should have a certificate.

[Line 12] ‘…a romp with you…’ Childish physical play. This is the first instance in the poem of the jocular approach, or ‘comic voice’, in parts of the poem that some critics have found condescending or inappropriate.

[Line 13] ‘…among the Khyber ‘ills’ The mountainous theatre of operations in the 2nd Afghan War, 1878 – 80.

[Line 14] ‘The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,’ A reference to the First South African War, not previously mentioned, in which the Boer farmers of the Transvaal successfully held Laing’s Nek and then inflicted a signal defeat on a British force on Majuba Hill in February, 1881. These successes were largely due to the fieldcraft, fire and movement and marksmanship of the Boer riflemen in action, but not necessarily at long range, as Kipling implies. The Boers of that war were mostly armed with the British Westley-Richards single-shot game rifle, inferior in range and rate of fire to the army’s Martini-Henry, its major infantry weapon from 1871 to 1888.

[Line 15] ‘The Burman gave us Irriwaddy chills,’ In the campaign leading to the annexation of Burma on 1 January 1886, the Burmese army avoided pitched battles and casualties were low. However, the losses from disease were high and the ‘Irriwaddy chills’ would have been from malaria, dysentery and, ultimately, cholera.

[Line 16] ‘An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style.’ In the opening days of the Zulu War in January, 1879, three British columns with some 16,000 British troops and native levies advanced into Zululand from Natal. The central column pitched camp in an open plain without bothering to throw up entrenchments or erect defences. While the commander and part of the column were away, the camp was attacked by some 20,000 Zulus on 22 January and the defenders annihilated, losing some 1400 killed. The Zulus fought in well disciplined and controlled units, or impis, each of several hundred men.

[Line 18] ‘Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;’ Like a soft drink compared with the ‘strong liquor’ that the Mahdists forced them to swallow.. ‘Pop’ was fizzy lemonade or non-alcoholic ginger beer.

[Line 20] ‘…knocked us ‘oller.’ – ‘…knocked us hollow.’ Beat us thoroughly.

[Line 22] ‘…’an the missis an’ the kid’ – And the wife (Mrs) and the child. Another jocular addition.

[Line 23] ‘We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair’ ‘To slosh’ is to hit, the usual meaning being to strike a blow with the fist or some sort of improvised weapon. Here it refers to the fire power of the Martini-Henry rifle, hence being ‘hardly fair’ to tribesmen without firearms or at best with a few captured weapons.
It is interesting to note that the Oxford Dictionary of Slang gives 1890 as the first documented use of ‘slosh’ in the sense of ‘to hit’, so it might well be referring to this use by Kipling.

[Line 24] ‘ …you broke the square.’ This is probably the greatest admission of success that a British soldier could make with respect to an opponent, in an age when the invincibility of the British infantry square in the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly its success against the French cavalry at Waterloo, was enshrined in the British public’s view of the Army.

See also lines 36 and 48, and ‘The British Square’ in the introductory comment.

[Lines 28 – 31] ‘In usin’ of ‘is long two ‘anded swords: …’ These lines depict the weapons and the tactics of the mix of tribes in the Mahdist forces with admirable economy. The long-handled, straight-bladed sword, based on late medieval Crusader swords, was an almost universal weapon amongst all the tribes, as was the broad-bladed spear, although slender-tipped spears were also used. Shield shapes varied much more widely and most, like the Hadendowa, actually used small round hide-and-wood shields.

Concealment in the almost universal scrub and broken ground was made much use of, as was a final, close quarter rush in strength into the opposing forces, sometimes launched directly from concealment.

[Line 36] ‘For if you ‘ave lost more than us, …’ Mahdist casualty figures were very hard to determine accurately but battlefield dead from a number of engagements show that their reckless bravery in the face of firearms could result in anything from ten to twenty times the number of dead compared with British or Egyptian troops. Figures for the wounded are even harder to calculate. One aspect that was apparent to British troops from early on was that the Mahdists took no prisoners – in a fight it was win or die for the British, which itself contributed to the high number of Mahdists killed.

[Lines 37 – 40] ‘ ‘E rushes at the smoke …’ Another accurate resumé of some Mahdist tactics.

[Lines 41 – 42]

‘ ‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,’

A return to the ‘comic voice’ with lines that can grate when considered against the serious implications of the subject matter. However, they do reflect the way in which people can behave when acknowledging that someone has got the better of them but then disguise their embarrassment or true feelings by making a joke of the matter or otherwise treating it lightly. This can be particularly true of soldiers, trained to think that they and their unit are superior to all other fighting men and Kipling was quite justified in including this very human behaviour in the poem. Its inclusion also makes it more likely that he was reflecting some soldier’s first-hand account, rather than only working from newspaper reports or official despatches.

[Lines 47 and 48] ‘ …with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air.’ …with your hayrick head of hair. Kipling’s soldier elevates this physical characteristic of the ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ to a mark of distinction in this final toast to a gallant foe – and then relapses into the ‘comic voice’ with ‘You big black boundin’ beggar’ before admitting for the last time that he ‘broke a British square’.


©Roger Ayers 2005 All rights reserved